The Limits of Compassion

Happy Mother’s Day! No one believes in me and sacrificed more for me than my mother. I see that mothers are the most compassionate beings indeed — toward their own children.

Paul Ekman calls “tribal-bound compassion” the problem of our time, of our century. Until we untangle ourselves from this limitation, until we focus on global compassion and love all beings like our own children, we may end up destroying ourselves.

Why not bottle compassion as a potion for sale?

Since recent studies show how compassion releases oxytocin, endorphins and other biochemicals in the brain, perhaps we can bottle compassion to make us feel good, to make others be good to us, and to dominate the world with this magic? Oh, wait a minute, there are already labs out there bottling these chemicals. So why are we still so anxious, distressed and unkind?

In a society obsessed with quick fixes, we want our enlightenment and virtues in the next 15 days, or money back! Unfortunately, or fortunately, the process of being compassion evolves and is experienced from moment to moment until a lifetime or more goes by. To master the art of compassion requires patience, commitment and vigilant moment-to-moment mindfulness. There are no magic pills, but just as Alan Watts reflects, life, as “in music, one does not make the end of the composition, the point of the composition.” It was a musical thing where we were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.

How do we become more compassionate?

Well, yes and no. . .

No, we do not become more compassionate because compassion is inherent, as more and more research such as those at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good show. Children help and comfort others in distress without the presence of parents, rewards or “warm glow”. We are compassionate by nature, unlike much of the negative psychology tells us. There is no attaining compassion because we are already compassionate. It is more likely that we rediscover our compassion.

So yes, we need to practice to clear away any dust that covers our inner gem of compassion. Much of the practice takes an awareness that may require words at first; but at a certain point of inspiration, “elevation” or experiential, the narrative we construct falls away and there is only the open state of interconnected sense of compassion.

Is anyone undeserving of compassion?

This question struck me somewhat like a zen koan. My mind’s gyration came to a grinding halt for a lack of a response. In that moment of pause, a plane of consciousness without conceptions and constructions reveals itself.

Easing out of that spaciousness and squeezing back into the reflective and analytical brain, I notice the perhaps unexamined arrogance in this question. Is compassion a basket to be handed out? Is someone or some collective playing God or judge, determining the how, how much and what for those “deserving” of compassion? Is there a definitive segregation between those distributing compassion and those receiving compassion?

I would imagine and certainly hope that at any time we can BE compassionate and accept compassion. (Actually, accepting compassion is often a way to be compassionate.) In my theoretical mode, I would further examine the perspective from which this question is posed, and that is, compassion cannot possibly come from a place of hierarchy, as if a hand-me-down to a lower echelon. Com-passion, together in passion, can only occur with the realization of interconnectedness, where me becomes we, especially with the realization that we are all in this together.

By claiming that someone is undeserving of compassion, we are essentially denying compassion for ourselves.

Is there politics in causes based on compassion?

Certainly, people can jockey for power in anything, even over virtues and the race to be more virtuous. We like to think that the line between good and evil is impermeable—that people who do terrible things, such as commit murder, treason, or kidnapping, are on the evil side of this line, and the rest of us could never cross it. The Stanford prison experiment and the Stanley Milgram shock experiments revealed the permeability of that line. Some people are on the good side only because situations have never coerced or seduced them to cross over. Pressured by high stakes, even those working for compassionate causes let their uglier heads rear.

In a world where there are more than enough struggles, we alleviate suffering and bring happiness by not engaging in any tug of war, but focus on areas where we can be compassionate. As Jimi Hendrix says, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”

Is there such a thing as a Compassionate Corporation?

Saw a few high-tech entrepreneurs with huge hearts at the recent Wisdom 2.0 Conference. These business leaders know the value of doing good is good business and have been encouraging enlightening growth for individual employees, their corporate culture and the society at large. Seattle became the first Compassionate City, I expect to see first Compassionate Corporations, first Compassionate Universities, first Compassionate Congregations, first Compassionate Countries and others to join the ranks soon!

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe